In many high schools, much of the beginning of senior year is devoted to creating the perfect essay to go along with college applications. The preparation for undergraduate applications within high schools begins far before senior year in some cases, with schools offering the PSAT to sophomores and some even offering a free SAT for juniors. While it is up to the student to figure out what schools he or she wants to apply to, many high schools provide resources that greatly help alleviate the stress of applications, guiding the students through the process.
Applying to graduate school is a whole different ballgame—it’s all about figuring out what, specifically, you are interested in pursuing and finding the program that best fits your needs. While there is time devoted to teaching high school students how to craft their college applications, there is no such luck when it comes to graduate school. As someone who is in the process of applying to graduate school now, I’m no expert on the topic, but these are just a few of the things that I’ve learned throughout this whole process thus far.
1. Do your research
Whereas one might be able to find similar majors that interest them at more than one university undergraduate program, graduate programs are somewhat more unique and more directly tailored to a specific career path. Whether it’s law school, medical school or any other type of program, it is important to research all of your potential schools early on.
Every school is going to be different in regard to what they look for in candidates, so it’s important to start your research early. Seek out those programs that interest you, sign up for their mailing lists to receive more information and even reach out to the contact provided with any questions. Figuring out where you’re interested in attending is just the first step, but with all of the materials offered by graduate programs, it can be the easiest one.
2. Gather your application materials early
Once you decide where it is you’re interested in attending, look at what each program requires for their application. Typically, programs will ask for a resumé, a personal statement, test scores and letters of recommendation, though that varies by school. Don’t just wing your application and submit it the day that it’s due without a second thought. Write your essays in advance and reach out to those professors or employers for letters of recommendation early on.
In regard to personal or professional statements, it is a good idea to write them, read them aloud and revise them once or twice before creating a final product. At my university, we have a Reading and Writing Center with peer tutors, both undergraduate and graduate students, who are there to work with students to improve their writing. Last semester, I served as a tutor within the Reading and Writing Center and saw many different types of personal statements from students. By the end of each session, the student felt more comfortable with his or her writing and was more confident in sending in their application. If this is something present at your university, take full advantage of it, but if it isn’t, then pass along your statement to a friend or teacher that you trust to give honest feedback. As is the case with all writing, it is helpful to get a second set of eyes on a paper because while something might make sense during the writing process, it may not translate quite the way that you had hoped once on paper.
3. Get meaningful letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are not something that was required of applications for college, at least for the undergraduate programs I applied for, so this can be completely out of some people’s comfort zones. When choosing professors or employers to write these letters, be sure to give them some time rather than just springing it on them last second. Additionally, don’t just ask any random professor to write a letter for you. Ask someone who can really speak on your behalf from past course experiences, preferably a professor with whom you’ve taken a class or two. It is important to have some sort of relationship with the professor prior to asking for a letter of recommendation, making sure that they are someone who has seen you grow as a student and progress during your time as their student.
In addition, when asking a professor for a letter of recommendation, be sure to make it personal. Don’t just send a generic email; go into the professor’s office hours and have a genuine conversation before asking for the letter of recommendation. From the student side, many would hope for personalized letters of recommendation, so it is important to approach asking your professors for them in the same personalized way.
4. Don’t stress yourself out over the GRE
While the GRE is an important exam to be studied for and taken seriously, for some schools, it is not the most important part of the application. Unlike the SAT and ACT, which were weighted heavily among most of the undergraduate programs I applied for, the GRE is just another opportunity for a student to demonstrate his or her potential for success within the program. Some graduate programs don’t even require students to send in their scores upon applying, but could ask for it later on as they see fit. However, GRE and other test scores work on a school-by-school basis, so be sure to check into each program’s requirements before taking the test. Regardless of whether or not the GRE is required upon submitting your application, be sure to take the exam well in advance. That way, you have the scores ready if a program asks or have time to take the test again before submitting your scores.
Even though some schools may not require test scores upon applying, or at all, it is important that those taking the GRE do not take it cold. Studying for the test is something that a person can do either as a part of a course or on his or her own. Find a study plan that works for you and stick to it, but do not take the test cold because the only person you’d be hurting with that is yourself.
5. Show the admissions committee who you are, don’t just tell them
No, not in the same way that Elle Woods created a video essay for her Harvard Law School application. Showing the admissions committee who you are and why you would be a good fit for their program means making sure that you send in materials to back up what it says on your resumé. For example, if you mention an internship or job that relates to the field that you would potentially be studying, include some of your work that you may have done at that job. For anyone applying to MFA or MA programs within the fields of creative writing or journalism, it is a good idea to create a digital portfolio with your writing samples and include it somewhere within your application or on your resumé.
Applying to graduate school can be far different from any other application a person has filled out in his or her life. Just because it is new and unfamiliar territory doesn’t mean that it has to be something difficult that you navigate alone. Reach out to friends and family members who have applied to different graduate programs to get their take on things. Visit your school’s career center and speak with an advisor about which programs might suit you best. While this might be a scary and overwhelming experience at the beginning, there are many resources to help ease the pain that comes with crafting the perfect graduate school application.